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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Debate kicks off over lack of Indian faces in Hollywood war epic 'Dunkirk'

Four Indian companies were reportedly sent to Dunkirk, with one company taken captive by the Nazis and sent to POW camps where they later died. But not a single Indian is featured in Christopher Nolan's new film

From left: Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard and Fionn Whitehead are seen here in a scene from 'Dunkirk'. Warner Bros Pictures via AP
From left: Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard and Fionn Whitehead are seen here in a scene from 'Dunkirk'. Warner Bros Pictures via AP

Should a film director tackling a period of history take pains to feature all the protagonists or merely tell the story from the angle that he or she chooses? That’s the question some Indians are debating over the absence of a single Indian face in Christopher Nolan’s new epic, Dunkirk.

The film is a magisterial portrayal of the mass evacuation of Allied troops from the northern coast of France in 1940. It has received ecstatic reviews in India and has been playing to packed audiences.

The debate was kicked off by an article in the Times of India a week ago pointing out that, for the evacuation, the British needed animal transport since they had disbanded their own animal transport companies after the First World War. They sent out an order for mules and their handlers to come from India, which was under British rule at the time of the Second World War. The mules were essential for transporting arms and ammunition over land in France that wasn’t motorable.

The article said: "Four Indian Animal Transport companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps were sent to aid the British Expeditionary Force from Bombay". Of these four companies, three were successfully evacuated from Dunkirk but the soldiers in the fourth contingent were taken captive by the Nazis and died in POW camps. The article lamented the fact that this "significant contribution" was missing from Nolan’s film.

Read more: Four Indian companies were present at Dunkirk

Another journalist, Mihir Shar, writing in Bloomberg View, was more acerbic, saying the film adds to the “falsehood that plucky Britons stood alone against Nazi Germany once France fell, when, in fact, hundreds of millions of imperial subjects stood, perforce, with them’’.

The topic was soon picked up by other writers who pointed out that Indians had rarely featured in any Second World War movies even though, according to historical data, about 2.5 million Indians (from both India and Pakistan, as this was before the birth of Pakistan) served with the British army in the war.

In fact, in 2015, when reviewing The Raj at War: A People's History of India's Second World War by Oxford historian Yasmin Khan, writer William Dalrymple said the book finally did justice to "the crucial contribution of the Indian army" to Hitler’s defeat.

“The British always liked to believe they stood alone in 1940, a plucky little island defying the massed ranks of fascists and Nazis. What we tend to forget, as Khan reminds us, is that ‘Britain did not fight the second world war, the British Empire did’." Dalrymple wrote.

He went on: "No less than five million citizens of the British Empire joined the military services between 1939 and 1945, and almost two million of these … were from South Asia. At many of Britain’s greatest victories and at several of the war’s most crucial turning points — El Alamein, Monte Cassino, Kohima — a great proportion of ‘British’ troops were not British at all, but Indian.’’

Review: Dunkirk catches the historical verity of the event

Other Indians took a different view of Nolan’s "exclusion" of Indians in Dunkirk. After all, when Hollywood was making Vietnam War movies such as Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and Platoon, they presented the war entirely from the perspective of American soldiers fighting in Vietnam, not from the viewpoint of the Vietcong or of ordinary Vietnamese.

On a lighter note, the Hindustan Times newspaper lent its voice to the debate by calling Dunkirk “a celebration of the bravery shown by common people. And if Indians were involved, the film, however abstract it is in its ways, pays homage to them too.”

Film director Alankrita Shrivastava, who is currently basking in the success of her film Lipstick Under My Burkha, said that both points of view were justified.

"Directors have a certain responsibility, when presenting a historical issue, to get things right. That’s fair. But they must have absolute freedom to present whatever perspective they wish. Films can’t be put to the same test as history books. You can’t tick off all the boxes to please every section of society," she said.

Nitin Tej Ahuja, who produced the films Bullett Raja and Revolver Rani, agreed with Shrivastava. Dunkirk, he points out, is a feature film, not an exhaustive documentary. “Christopher Nolan is not required to be comprehensive. The story telling is his and his credentials are such that you can’t question him. Anyway, if we feel strongly about the Indian contribution to Dunkirk or the war generally, then we should make those movies ourselves,” said Ahuja.

The debate does not seem to have affected filmgoers.

“Every country tells its own stories according to its own lights,” said computer science student Alisha Barua after watching the film on Friday night in the Indian capital.

“We should be more aware about our own history and tell those stories ourselves instead of bashing Nolan for not doing so.”